John M. Wing as typesetter

Robert Williams


ohn M. Wing (1844-1917) is probably best known for the collection on the history of printing that bears his name at the Newberry Library, Chicago. That this collection focuses on the objects and processes of printing is appropriate since during his life Wing was involved in typesetting, printing, authorship, and publishing. His first introduction to printing occurred shortly before his 16th birthday (April 7) when he got a job as a printers devil at the Pulaski Democrat, a local newspaper near his upstate New York home of Holmesville. He recorded his first day in his diary: Mon. Apr. 2, 1860 According to agreement I commenced working in the printing establishment of the “Pulaski Democrat” this morning. My first [assignment] was getting a pail of water, then took my first lesson in setting type. It was quite a long day. But got along very well, came home at night. And am now fully initiated as “Printers Devil” but I do not despare [sic], well knowing that [Benjamin] Franklin was once a devil.

He only lasted four months at the Democrat, and grew to hate the work, but this was the beginning of Wing’s lifelong career in writing and publishing. After he left the Democrat, Wing worked a few months in a rural school, lying about his age to get a teaching certificate. Teaching wasn’t to Wings liking, and in the spring of 1861 he found himself again working for a newspaper, the Oswego Times. He began this job, which included both typesetting and reporting the news, three weeks before the start of the Civil War. He was promptly laid off the day after the war began: there was little time to break in a neophyte reporter during such momentous times. Wing got a job at an Oswego bookstore, but a year later, on April 8, 1862, the 18-year-old Wing found himself working for another regional weekly newspaper, the Black River Herald in Booneville, NY. He became a fairly adept typesetter, and within a few months records setting 6,000 ems a day. Nineteenth-century compositors were paid according to how much type they set and returned to the typecase, and this quantity was measured in ems. An em is a unit equal to the square of the body size of the letter m of a given type. Wing’s 6,000 ems was pretty close to the mid-century average of 7,000 ems per a ten hour workday.1

Wing also added to his income by writing articles for the Herald and Pulaski Democrat, among other local papers. As he became more and more adept at typesetting, Wing began doing something remarkable: he wrote his articles directly in his composing stick, without writing them out in longhand. “ . . . there is a long Local in [the newspaper] set by me without copy — extensive” (June 11, 1862). This seems to have been a way of saving time writing out articles in longhand after working a 10- or 12-hour day. Two weeks later he did this again, with even more articles: “Set up an item entitled ‘Monsieur Leather Breeches’ from my head, and several other items in the same manner” (June 24, 1862). On September 26, 1862, Wing sat for his photo with a fellow compositor on the Black River Herald, only identified by Wing as “John.” This is the earliest known surviving photograph of him, which, some 40 years later, Wing tipped into — appropriately enough — a volume on William Caxton, one of his many extra-illustrated books.

In addition to typesetting and writing articles, Wing also helped proofread and print the paper, and some 20 months after he began at the Herald he became a journeyman printer: “December 1, 1863 Emerge, thank Heaven to-day from my long apprenticeship. It has been short when compared to some, but far too long to suit poor, restless me.”

In January 1864, he was offered a proofreading job at the Utica Morning Herald, and on the 27th began working at that newspaper. He rarely set type after that, focusing more on reporting the news and writing editorials. Soon he would follow Horace Greeley’s advice and go West, eventually settling in Chicago where the stories of his trials, tribulations, and triumphs were recorded in his last two diaries of 1865 and 1866, now published by The Caxton Club in collaboration with the Southern Illinois University Press. =

1 Walker Rumble. “A Time of Giants: Speed Composition in Nineteenth-Century America.” Publishing History 28 (Vol. XIV, no. 2, 1992), p. 14.

Wing (right)

"John and I got our likeness, sitting down, with type and stick in hand..." Wing is on the right, holding a composing stick. Photo courtesy of the John M. Wing Foundation of the Newberry Library, Chicago.

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